The Russian blogosphere has been in turmoil for the last week with the news that LiveJournal, the site used most frequently by Russian-language bloggers, was partnering with Russian internet company Sup. Sup is owned by Aleksandr Mamut, a well-connected oligarch and political insider. While there’s no indication from Sup or SixApart, which owns LiveJournal, that the partnership will give Russian authorities access to the personal data of LiveJournal users – indeed, GV’s Veronica Kholkhova reports that SixApart has assured users this won’t happen – many bloggers are moving their writing off the LiveJournal servers or taking other steps to ensure that their content won’t be monitored by Sup’s “abuse team”.
Evgeny Morozov, a journalist who is one of the key bloggers behind Transitions Online’s fascinating Belarussian group blog, wrote in the International Herald Tribune today to explain why the move looks so sinister to Russian-speaking bloggers:
All ingredients are in order. The oligarch (Aleksandr Mamut, one of the few oligarchs who made a smooth transition between the regimes, owns Sup); the upcoming 2007 and 2008 elections; the independent media asset with tremendous popularity; and the controversial figure in charge (Sup’s chief blogging officer is Anton Nossik, the father of the Russian Internet and, among other things, a former associate of Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s spindoctor).
Sup already announced the creation of an “abuse team.” Typically, abuse teams monitor, warn and suspend blogs that post inappropriate content; prior to the deal, this function was performed by LiveJournal’s American abuse team.
Given Sup’s roots and potential ideology, one can hardly expect that the scope of discussions allowed on the Russian Internet will increase.
If history is anything to judge by, the days of the Russian blogosphere buzzing with criticial opinions are numbered. Unfortunately, a simple solution of migrating to another blog service would only disrupt the existing communication networks that have made LiveJournal so popular.
Evgeny suggests that many bloggers chose LiveJournal because they didn’t trust their personal information to a Russian company. While bloggers can leave and move to any number of other services which will be less clearly tied to Russian entrepreneurs, they’ll lose some of the community features that make LiveJournal such a unique online space. The Russian blogosphere is so closely tied to LiveJournal, Veronica tells us, that the blogosphere is informally referred to as ZheZhe, short for “ZhivoyZhurnal”, or LiveJournal.
I hope the folks at SixApart will realize that, even if their intentions are good, the perception that the Russian blogosphere will be monitored by entities closely tied to the Putin government is surely going to chase away some bloggers. The assassination of reformist reporter Anna Politkovskaya – and Putin’s shameful failure to speak about her death of two days, followed by comments dismissing her importance – has called attention to the deteriorating space for free speech in Russia. (Reporters without Borders ranks Russia 147th of 168 in press freedom, just above Tunisia and several spots below Zimbabwe.)
SixApart has told its Russian-speaking community that they’ll be able to opt out of the new Russian “features”, which may assuage some fears. Perhaps this will help prevent the collapse of the Russian LiveJournal community that Morozov predicts. But don’t count on it.